THE EVIDENCE by Christopher Priest (BOOK REVIEW)
“Then it suddenly struck me that what I was doing to my novel draft was similar to what I knew of mutability.
The original text, the first draft, was forced into changes by my rewriting them. Once I had written them the new version seemed so natural, so organic to the book, that not only were they an improved version, I could no longer remember what my original draft had said. The outer perception of material reality, the inner perception of change without memory – as Frejah had tried to explain it to me.”
The Evidence (2020) sees Christopher Priest return to The Dream Archipelago to deliver one of the most focused, playful and enjoyable books of his career. Revolving around a crime writer who becomes embroiled in a seemingly impossible murder mystery, The Evidence is a meditation on storytelling and how genre shapes the stories we tell. Along the way we get a dizzying mash up of all of Priest’s regular obsessions, from twins to magic shows to lost time, and all the bending and twisting of reality we’ve come to expect by now. The novel delights in taking apart the conventions of crime fiction whilst constructing a plausible crime story in front of the audience’s eyes. This new found playfulness stands in stark contrast to Priest’s most recent novel An American Story’s (2018) powerful and unsettling exploration of conspiracy theory narratives around the 9/11 attacks, and allows Priest to return to his favourite themes with enthusiasm and brio.
Todd Fremde is a moderately successful crime writer, living on the island of Salay Raba, the fourth. His normal routine is disturbed when he is invited to talk about ‘The Role of the Modern Crime Novel in a Crime Free Society’ at an academic conference on the distant island of Dearth. Travel across the Dream Archipelago is rarely all that it seems, and Todd soon finds his situation changing from the inconvenient to the bizarre. Something strange seems to be happening to time, or to Todd, whilst he is in Dearth, possibly connected to the vague but foreboding warnings about ‘mutability’ that appear all over his hotel. And this is before Todd is befriended by a heavily armed retired cop who tells him a story full of holes about a decade old unsolved mystery, a mystery which follows Todd home and begins to encroach on his everyday life.
One of the enduring themes of Priest’s work is how the act of narrating a story shapes our perception of the actual events. His novels are full of unreliable narrators, characters whose perspective distorts the story they are communicating to the reader. Through this Priest explores how all narratives are reflective of the perception of their narrator, however well meaning the narrator may be, and the difficulty in separating this perception from an idealised objective truth. Priest approaches this theme in a number of ways in The Evidence. As a crime novel about a crime novelist, the book is fascinated with both the techniques of the crime novel and the attraction of crime fiction for both reader and author. Throughout the novel, Priest explores the differences between the elaborately constructed puzzle plots that form the traditional crime novel and the messiness and spontaneity that characterise most real-life murders. By juxtaposing the murder mystery with the stage magician and the twins, elements familiar from Priest’s best known work The Prestige (1995), the author reminds us of the similarity between the satisfying resolution of a crime mystery and the magician’s stage trick, and the sleight of hand involved in both.
Priest also contrasts the desire for the mystery in a crime novel to be neatly tied up with our real-world anxieties about police and state control. In the Dream Archipelago, a stilted feudal social system exists throughout the islands, propped up by totalitarian governments and endless bureaucracy. The citizens of the various islands have learned not to trust their governments or their police forces, particularly through the islanders’ attempts to help deserters from the military states engaged in perpetual war to escape and start new lives away from the violence. Dearth calls itself a crime free society, but has simply shifted the definition of the word crime in order to detract from its highly armed and well-funded police force. The Evidence shows that what a governing body deems a crime and what the citizens of the same country deem a crime can be two very different things. This is in contrast to the heroic police detective of the traditional crime novel, and our desire as readers to see events have a neat and tidy resolution.
Running through the book is the idea of mutability. Readers familiar with the Dream Archipelago will be aware of the way reality seems to shift and warp, and the labyrinthine and incomprehensible bureaucracies and methods the various islands have come up to deal with living under these conditions. Mutability is introduced through the mundane – official city warnings on hotel bills and booking instructions, part of the background inconvenience of travel that seems entirely banal until accidentally transgressed, when it becomes a huge and terrifying problem. As this thing Todd was previously unaware of becomes a larger and larger part of his life, he can’t help but notice the similarities between the concept of mutability and the act of rewriting and redrafting in writing a novel. In the style of metafiction, is Todd running up against the physical manifestation of his own author’s desire for perfection in his writing, the fabric of his reality warping and shifting as Priest makes different stylistic choices and narrative decisions?
In the end The Evidence, as Todd warns us early on, is less interested in neat and tidy endings than it is in exploring the psychological state of its characters, and in using genre fiction to ask questions about genre fiction. Nevertheless Priest manages to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion, whilst poking holes in the very idea of a satisfying conclusion as he does so. The novel is a fine example of the unsettling power and imagination of one of British SF’s finest authors, and hints at exciting new directions in Priest’s work to come.